Red Devils fall in third round

By Jimmy Kirby
Courier Sports

SALUDA — What a difference a week made in the life of Liberty High School football, as Saluda turned the tables on Red Devils with a 35-5 win in the third round of the Class 2A state playoffs on Friday night.

A week after Liberty manhandled Blacksburg in a 35-7 round two victory, Saluda returned to favor on Friday, dominating on both lines of scrimmage to shut down the Red Devils.

Liberty managed only 62 yards of offense in the game and averaged just a yard per play as the Devils totaled 62 offensive plays.

The Tigers, meanwhile, relied on the big play in scoring their 35 points and will head to Abbeville to take on the Panthers in the upper state finals this week.

 12-7 Page 1B.inddLiberty started the game with an onside kick and recovered the kickoff at the Saluda 45-yard line. The first drive was a glimpse of things to come, as the Red Devils managed only five yards on the drive and were forced to punt.

The Devils caught another early break as Tyrell Abney could not handle the punt, and Cole Murphy recovered the ball at the Saluda 11-yard line. Again the Red Devils couldn’t move the ball and settled for a 28-yard Austin Kemp field goal for the their only offensive points of the night.

The Tigers got a huge 45-yard run by Malik Brooks after the Devils took the early lead, putting Saluda deep in Liberty territory at the 14-yard line. Brooks scored four plays later, and the Tigers were off and running.

Abney made up for his fumbled punt with a 53-yard run on the Tigers’ next series of downs, giving his team a 14-3 lead after the first quarter.

Two series later, the Tigers were in business again as Brooks went around right end for an 81-yard scamper and a 21-3 lead.

Saluda closed out the scoring in the first half with a beautifully executed screen pass from Noah Bell to Ty Bell from 47 yards out for a 12-7 Page 1B.indd28-3 lead.

The only touchdown of the second half came on Noah Bell’s pass for 61 yards into tight double coverage to Raquon Hartley. Hartley tipped the ball to himself over the two Red Devil defenders and waltzed into the end zone for the final score of the night for the Tigers.

Liberty’s Aaron Bates made a tackle for a safety in the game’s final minute to make up the final score.

It was one of those games where the Red Devils just couldn’t get into sync offensively and the Liberty defense had no answer for Brooks, who led all rushers with 137 yards on 17 carries. Abney followed with 75 yards on five carries.

Cavaugio Butler led the way for the Red Devils with just 21 yards on 13 carries. Garrett Fricks was the second leading rusher with 18 yards on five carries late in the game.

The Red Devils couldn’t make up any ground through the air as Nick Reeves was pressured into just three completions in 21 attempts and 27 yards passing.

The Red Devils complete the season at 8-5 and will savor the program’s first-ever home playoff win and a second-round road victory at Blacksburg.

Coach Kyle Stewart was disappointed in the loss, but spoke highly about this year’s team.

“It has been a historic season for our program,” he said. “I am so proud of what this group of young men have accomplished this year.”

He gave high praise to the dominant performance by Saluda.

“Although we came up short tonight, our team should hold their heads high,” he said.

Stewart said at the beginning of the season that his senior group of players would make a difference in the outcome of the season, and he was correct.

“I believe they have set the standard for those that will follow in their footsteps,” he said.

Stewart had time to put the whole season into perspective.

“Thinking back to the total season, from spring ball, the summer, fall camp, and now the regular season, this group as a whole has been incredibly dedicated and focused,” he said. “We have certainly had bumps in the road, but our resiliency showed.”

He said that the credit for the year goes to the players.

“They play the games,” he said.

Stewart also had good things to say about his coaching staff.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job also,” he said. “I am very thankful for the sacrifices they have made for these young men. Preparation takes a lot of time. That is time away from family. I am proud to have these men working with our players.”

The Devils will now wait to see what crop of young men will step up for the 2017 season. With a little improvement, just maybe the Red Devils can continue to take those last two steps and complete the ultimate task of a state title.

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